Uncooperative Heroines

July 28, 2017

I used to think it would be great fun to write steamy romances and watch them sell like hot cakes. Theoretically, it didn’t seem too hard. The requirements of the genre, as established by publishers such as Harlequin and Silhouette, were very specific as to length, type of plot, and the need for a happy resolution. Authors who mastered this form seemed able to generate at least two or three books per year. Their stories were gobbled up like candy by their addicted fans. None of these works had long shelf lives, but presumably the speed with which they were produced made up for that.

So why couldn’t I acquire this lucrative skill? I actually started my first two novels with romance at least partly in mind. Secretarial Wars is the tale of a secretary, Miriam, who aspires to be an investigative reporter, and discovers malfeasance at her quasi-government agency. Her plan is to impress a handsome underground editor with her journalistic skills. The Rock Star’s Homecoming features a college senior named Imogene who can’t get her boyfriend to commit, not even enough to take her to their final Homecoming dance. She concocts a plot to make him jealous by pursuing the leader of a homegrown rock band that returns to campus to perform at the dance (and incidentally, to cause a riot, just like the old days).

The problem with Miriam and Imogene was that they refused to behave like romantic heroines. The guys they pursued acted like jerks, which is typical male behavior in romances, especially at first acquaintance. The genre requires that the men eventually overwhelm such heroines with their redeeming qualities, beginning with sheer sex appeal. Unfortunately for Miriam and Imogene, the guys they were most attracted to were pretty much who they were, and never improved much when it came to character.

My heroines’ stories took a long time to unfold and never got totally resolved. I suppose the long epilogues, which some critics objected to, were a giveaway that there were many loose ends to tie up. I couldn’t seem to envision these stories whole. Like life, they didn’t come to me with a blueprint. It seemed the more I worked on a particular story, the more complicated the plot would become. Even though I edited as I went along, I acquired multiple threads and a profusion of secondary characters. I tried to bend my plots and characters to certain rules, but these conventions eluded me. I felt like I was back in first grade, trying in vain to color within the lines and finding out I was hopeless at art.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I studied certain hot-selling examples of the genre, trying to figure out what made them so popular. Some of these books I couldn’t finish. Not that they didn’t contain some decent writing and interesting plot twists. But in my opinion, the ever-present, required formulas dragged down what could have been intriguing stories. I found the predictability stultifying. Beyond that, the heroines simply didn’t speak to me. It’s not quite fair to say they were all alike, and yet in some ways they were.

I liked sex when I was younger, and I still like it theoretically, but I find endless, repetitive sex scenes quite boring. I roll my eyes and think, there they go again. Two people who are barely acquainted, or even dislike one another at first sight, can’t keep their hands off each other. Who really acts like that?  Lovemaking scenes rarely rise above trite writing. Can’t authors leave some of this to the reader’s imagination?

Miriam and Imogene didn’t cooperate by living happily ever after, although they were still young and hopeful when I left them. When I looked for romantic prototypes to model them on, I found too many women sacrificing every other passion in their lives for a chance at a perfect love. That is something Miriam and Imogene simply couldn’t do, as much as they longed to embrace their magic men. You can smell the main lesson of a traditional romance a mile away: a woman can’t possibly live a fulfilled life as a workaholic. In my sampling of romances, I encountered a ruthless prosecutor feared in the courtroom by criminals of all stripes, who happens to wander into a physically perilous situation while on a rare vacation, and has to be rescued by a sexy man. Of course she’s infuriated by her own helplessness, but how can she deny the pounding of her heart? I squirmed at the clumsy symbolism of a widely renowned heart surgeon whose own heart is broken. The question hovers over all of these heroines: what frustration or heartbreak are you covering up when you work so damned hard?

Sandra Brown’s Heaven’s Price, which I first read around 1983, is a prime example of a romance that has both the virtues and flaws of the genre. As far as writing and plotting, it’s not bad. Ms. Brown’s success as a romantic author is astounding. According to her Amazon page, she starting publishing in 1981 and wrote over 70 novels, 60 of which are New York Times bestsellers. Judging by her picture, she’s also blessed with movie star looks. Heaven’s Price was relaunched more than ten years after its first publication, due to customer demands. I guess you can’t argue with that kind of success. Or can you?

The very title of this book screams what it’s about and how it’s destined to end. A woman has to pay a price for her “heaven,” which is defined as the love of a good man. A man’s “goodness” is measured not by his kindness or virtue, but by his ability to turn her on. In this case, we have a heroine pushing thirty years old, who has enjoyed moderate success as a dancer but is discontent because real fame and fortune have eluded her. Her knees have been damaged by years of pounding stages, forcing her to take time off from city life and move to a remote location for treatment and rehabilitation. Her new landlord acts like a creep, but a sexy one. He pretends to be the masseuse she’s expecting, and has thoroughly manhandled her by the time the real masseuse turns up. Of course she’s angry at the deception, but who can resist such virility? What’s a little violation when you can get aroused like that?

As the relationship develops, the landlord proves to be seriously controlling in ways that would raise all kinds of red flags if this were real life. The sexual relationship develops quickly, and strikes me as barely consensual, which is typical of the genre. She might have said no at first, but she really meant yes, and since he could tell she really wanted it, he presses ahead. He also strikes me as both angry and possessive. She realizes she’s been loved before, but “never with such dominance.” Her growing need for him “could well destroy her life’s blueprint.” At one point, he tells her, “If you weren’t already battered, I’d be tempted to punish your insistence.” That seems to suggest that he didn’t need to resort to violence—just the suggestion of it was enough. Later, he comes out with, “I ought to knock the hell out of you for saying that … or better yet, I ought to throw you down on the bed …” As if violence and lovemaking are synonymous. When she pursues an audition before her knees are completely healed, he sabotages it “for her own good.” Of course she’s furious. The pain in her knees makes her even angrier, since it proves he was right. Once again, he knew better than she did what was best for her.

What really set my eyes rolling was the cheesy conversation these two have at the end, when all their differences are neatly resolved and they’re safely married. She has forgiven or soft-pedaled all of his offenses against her. Both are caught up in youthful passion, as if nothing else in the world mattered. It leaves me wondering what a couple is supposed to do when that burns out, as it inevitably must. Is there such a thing as a popular romance that depicts a relationship substantial enough to take a couple through middle and old age? Or are we to presume that fond memories of all that hot sex will suffice to keep the spark alive? At least my Miriam and Imogene will keep on trying to climb their respective career ladders, if only to have something to talk about with any future partners who respect their intellects as much as their bodies.

Advertisements

18 Responses to “Uncooperative Heroines”

  1. Jude Says:

    Did you try reading Fifty Shades of Grey? I downloaded the sample from Amazon and never even got through that. There’s so much in your post it’s hard to answer it all, but a few things came to mind. As far as sex scenes go, for me less description, but subtle hints are the best, and sometimes the best romances are the passionate but fleeting ones. I really loved the The Bridges of Madison County (not the film though!). Recently read a most interesting psychological thriller that kept me intrigued to the end, it only had two characters in it. It was called The Bird Tribunal, by Agnes Ravatn. A real swirling mix of emotions, sexual attraction, and you’re always wondering where it’s going!

    Really enjoyed your post!

  2. Marcus Case Says:

    I do enjoy all your posts, Linda, and for me this one not only excels but holds such resonance. Our writing journeys have followed many similar paths and timescales, and I can relate so easily to the points you make. Thanks yet again for a terrific post and best wishes from the other side of the pond.


  3. I too, tried to write a romance, thinking that they were so popular they might sell better than my family relationship stories but, having got my three very different young women and one tall dark and handsome scoundrel I found myself only suggesting sex, not describing it in detail and my women became stronger as my men became weaker. “A Lesson for the Teacher” taught me that was not my ideal genre.

    • lgould171784 Says:

      I can relate to all of this! I found in the course of my writing that as the women grew stronger, they no longer needed validation from scoundrels, no matter how sexy they were. Here’s to strong women!

  4. Amorina Rose Says:

    Interesting post.We all have different ways of interpreting what we see or read. Romance is actually a very hard genre to work in.

  5. A. Grace Says:

    This hits the nail on the head. I’ve read my fair share of romance novels, and I can say that out of dozens, maybe one or two have portrayed relationships built strongly enough on mutual understanding and sacrifice rather than infatuation (which always burns out in a matter of months) that they would realistically last. Yet the latter is what people want to read, because it feels good.

  6. Gia Says:

    Everything you said. Everything.
    We need REAL relationship stories. And this idea that he “knows” what’s best for her isn’t helping any woman in real life.


  7. Having a good laugh here. I SO don’t write like that! The Romance readers hate my story, think it’s too long, and WAY too complicated.

    I have never been able to read the stereotypical Romance, so there wasn’t much chance of that kind of a relationship in my writing – I don’t believe what I read. Love of the lasting kind is hard work and far more subtle. And non-dominating, of course.

    So I can have strong women – and a strong man. And hope my choices are appreciated by my tiny (so far) tribe. Self-respect is a virtue.

    • lgould171784 Says:

      Yes, I know from reading Pride’s Children that you are not about to allow the love triangle to resolve itself in any stereotypical way! You have two strong women and a strong man, and a host of complications to be worked out. That is the kind of story I appreciate.


      • I know what I’m doing; I just hope that’s what the readers want!

        If not, well, I started this for myself. 🙂

        Whatever happens to my characters, it won’t be because they are wimps.

  8. wlancehunt Says:

    I’ve never been able to make it much past 10 pages into a romance novel; not that I’ve tried often, exactly because, as you said, you can smell the plot a mile away and already know how it’s going to happen. (That and the obsession with possessing things with brand names. Or perhaps that was just the novels I tried.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s